world heritage

Sacred Island of Okinoshima & Associated Sites in the Munakata Region (UNESCO) Esoteric shrines with a rich history

These three shrines have a colorful history, going back to an ancient period of new religious development and cultural exchange

Scattered throughout the northeastern side of Kyushu are three shrines with centuries of cultural and archaeological history. The structures date back to the Munakata clan, who ruled over the region in the 6th century. Marked by prosperity, religious development, and international communication, the Munakata clan contributed a lasting legacy to the country, particularly in the development of Shinto rituals. These three shrines are the most exemplary lasting structures showcasing their contributions.

On the mainland, in Munakata , is Hetsumiya Shrine (known as Munakata Taisha), a site believed to be used for some of the first formal Shinto practices in Japan. The nearby island of Oshima is home to Nakatsumiya Shrine, an ancient structure with beautiful ocean views. The third shrine on Okinoshima is off limits to the public, but has a mysterious and fascinating history of its own.

Highlights

  • Heading to the Shinpokan Museum at Hetsumiya Shrine to view notable votive objects and antiquities from the Korean peninsula and mainland China
  • Looking for the tomb mounds near Munakata, where leaders from the 6th century are buried
  • While visitors are not permitted on Okinoshima, you can visit nearby Oshima Island, home to Nakatsumiya Shrine, to get a similar experience

One of the first shrines used in Japan's native Shinto religion

Conveniently located on the mainland a short trip from the city of Fukuoka , Hetsumiya (also referred to as Munakata Taisha) is the most easily accessible of the three. While the structure is believed to have been erected in the 12th century, the site dates back to the earliest roots of the Shinto religion in the 6th century.

In addition to the well-preserved Shinto architecture and expansive grounds, the site is also home to the Shinpokan Museum, which contains some 80,000 artifacts and antiquities.

A serene shrine sits on the cliffs above the ocean

Located approximately 10 kilometers off Fukuoka's coast, the island of Oshima is home to the second Munakata shrine, Nakatsumiya. Disembarking from the ferry, you'll come across a torii gate and other small affiliated shrines. The main shrine sits at the foot of a mountain on the north side of the island.

Munakata Taisha

A mysterious tiny island occupied by a lone shrine and a solitary monk

The most famous of the three shrines is Okitsumiya, located on the remote island of Okinoshima . The shrine encompasses the entire island and is off limits. A solitary Shinto monk spends a 10-day interval at the shrine, performing rituals and maintaining the grounds.

The forbidden nature of the island is one of the reasons it remains so alluring. No one is permitted to visit the island, except for May 27th, when 200 men are allowed access as part of a ceremony commemorating Russian and Japanese soldiers who died in the Sea of Japan in 1905. Unfortunately, women are not allowed on the island under any circumstances.

Learn about the history of Japan's early relationships with its neighbors in Korea and China

Given their proximity to the Korean peninsula, it's no surprise that these ancient shrines share a close connection with Korean culture. Many archaeological artifacts found around the shrines originate from Korea and China, including earthenware, spades, pendants, iron accessories, and more. These items were left at the shrines as ritual offerings throughout the 6th and 10th centuries.

View the ancient tombs of the region's old rulers

Near Hetsumiya Shrine on the mainland, you'll come across a series of tombs made from mounds of raised earth, with some resembling the shape of a keyhole. Built in the 6th and 7th centuries, these tombs house the remains of notable figures within the Munakata clan.

How to Get There

From Fukuoka , take a local or rapid train along the JR Kagoshima Main Line from Hakata Station to Togo Station.

From Kitakyushu , take a local or rapid train along the JR Kagoshima Main Line from Kokura Station to Togo Station.

To reach the island of Oshima, you can take a 25-minute ferry ride from Kono Ferry Port in Munakata .

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